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Studies in the Late Roman, Sasanian, 
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Studies in the Late Roman, 
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In Memory of Zeev Rubin 

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Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 
and Middle Iranian Kingship 

Matthew P. Canepa (Minneapolis) 

Introduction * 

In this study, dedicated to the memory of Zeev Rubin, I explore one im- 
portant facet of Iranian kingship between Alexander and Islam: the art and 
ritual of Achaemenid and Seleucid funerary monuments and their impact on 
later Macedonian and Middle Iranian kingship in Western and South Asia. 
The relationship of Achaemenid royal traditions to those of their Hellenistic 
and Iranian successors is one of the perennial problems of the Middle Iranian 
period, and impacts this topic as well. I explore to what extent - if at all - 
did Seleucid and Middle Iranian monumental and ritual practices engage the 
traditions of the Achaemenids, and to what extent were new royal practices 
created and >Iranized<, with contemporary Macedonian, steppe nomadic or 
even South Asian royal traditions appropriated as raw material. 

In this and related studies, I have found it important to critically examine 
the relationship between cultural identity and the evidence of art and ritu- 
al encountered in the evidence. Rather than assuming any inherent Iranian, 
>Persian<, or, much less, Zoroastrian quality to the architectural forms or rit- 
uals themselves, this study focuses on Middle Iranian kingship as a contested 
- and malleable - collection of practices that several different peoples appro- 
priated and manipulated to appeal to both global and local audiences. 1 Thus 
it is just as important to focus on forces of rupture in Iranian culture and 
attempts on the part of Iranian regimes to reinvigorate - or even reinvent - 
past traditions as search for evidence of continuity. From this point of view 

Research for this study was made possible with the support of a Charles A. Ryskamp 
Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and 
a Visiting Research Fellowship from Merton College, University of Oxford. 
On the problem of cross-cultural interaction: Canepa 2010a. 

2 Matthew P. Canepa 

Iranian kingship, Iranian royal identity was something that was constantly 
enacted and recreated .and could be modified, contested or erased. 2 

The Achaemenid Heritage 

Achaemenid Persian kingship impacted the development of Middle Iranian 
royal culture; however, not in the manner understood by early scholarship, 
which drew a developmental line from Persian royal ritual to that of the 
Hellenistic kings, and which still sometimes haunts classical studies schol- 
arship. Some of the classic tropes, such as the use of the diadem, demands 
for full prostration (proskynesis) from courtiers, or a >god-like< king honored 
with isotheos timos, find no corroboration in contemporary Persian primary 
sources, though Alexander certainly demanded them. 3 Similarly no Persian 
primary sources attest that the Achaemenids developed anything resembling 
a cult of deceased kings, a »ruler cult* focused on the living kings empire- 
wide or in Parsa, or dynastic sanctuaries of the sort that emerged in Iranian 
lands after Alexander. 4 

The Achaemenids deposited the bodies of their deceased kings in the re- 
gions around three sites in the province of Parsa, the symbolic core of their 
empire; Pasargadae, Naqs-e Rostam and Persepolis. 5 Other monuments in 
the territory of ancient Parsa and near satrapal capitals reflect the traditions 
of the kings of kings. The Achaemenid rulers cultivated two succeeding tra- 
ditions of funerary architecture. The first tradition, as found at Pasargadae, 
was characterized by a monumental, free-standing structure made of ashlar 
masonry set atop a plinth. Fully developed in the tomb of Cyrus the Great 
at Pasargadae, the site integrated the tomb into a larger palatial and garden 

2 Canepa 2009, 7-8 ; Canepa 2010b, 121-154. 

3 Reflecting the >Greek< view of Achaemenid court culture provided by Greek lit- 
erature: Bitter 1965. See the comments of Josef Wiesehofer on this tradition of 
historiography (Wiesehofer 2006). 

4 Briant2002 s 675-680, 915 and 998-999; Stronach 1985, 605-627; Schippmann 1971. 
Cf. Mary Boyce 1975 and Boyce 197S-1991, vol. 2, 216-231. Boyce's oft-repeated 
theory of an Achaemenid temple cult of fire as well as the expectation that there 
would be official Achaemenid temple architecture rests on a passage from the Baby- 
loniaca of Berossos, who reports that Artaxerxes II ». . .was the first to set up an image 
of Aphrodite Anaitis in Babylon and to require such worship from the Susians, Ec- 
batanians, Persians and Bactrians and fromDamascus and Sardis« (Burstein 1978,' 29). 
But Berossos does not' mention temples and no archaeological evidence of official 
Achaemenid image or fire temples has been discovered. 

5 The most important archaeological study to date is Huff 2004. 

Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 3 

complex. 6 The main monuments of Pasargadae consisted of palatial build- 
ings with an associated garden (paradeisos), a »sacred area,« with a structure of 
unknown function, an artificial terrace, which could have hosted religious 
activities, and the tomb. 7 The tomb was constructed of ashlar masonry on 
a high, six-tiered plinth with a gabled roof measuring 10.60 m high, 13.20 
m long, and 12.20 m wide, with an inner tomb chamber 2.10 m high, 3.20 
m long, and 2.20 m wide. 8 All four monumental clusters were arranged on 
a ca. 2.30 kilometer long northeast-southwest axis with the palace/garden 
area roughly in the middle between the terrace to the north and the tomb 
to the southeast. 

A number of related tomb monuments dating to the period after Cyrus 
t:he Great present similar features. On the plain of Persepolis rose an unfin- 
ished structure, known variously as the Takt-e Rostam or Takt-e Gohar, 
/'which appears to be an exact copy of the tomb of Cyrus. 9 Similar to Pasar- 
' gadae, a palatial structure was built on the same orientation as the tomb. 10 A 
smaller structure at the site of Bozpar in Fairs outside the royal cities reflects 
the architecture of the tomb of Cyrus. Known locally as the Gor-e Dok- 
tar it measures 4.45 m high, 5.10 m long, and 4.40 m wide." A tomb with 
a pyramidal tiered plinth discovered in Sardis bore such resemblance to the 
P.ersian tombs that scholars have suggested that it was built by a Persian or 
with Persian inspiration. 12 

As in many other arenas of Persian kingship where he introduced new 
forms, Darius I (522 to 486 BCE) innovated a new type of Achaemenid. fu- 
nerary monument. Darius I carved a cruciform tomb monument into the 
living rock at Naqs-e Rostam. The upper portion of the monument carried 
relief sculpture of personifications of all provinces of the empire supporting 
a throne, which in turn supported a scene of the king of kings standing be- 
fore a fire altar in communication with a symbol of the Great God Ahura 
Mazda. The interior of the tomb, entered through a rock-cut facade evok- 
ing a hypostyle Persian palace with bull-protome columns, contained the 
rock-cut sarcophaguses of the king of kings and his family. At Naqs-e Ros- 

6 Stronach 1978; Stronach 1997. 

7 Tomb: Kleiss 1979, pi. 44. 

8 Stronach 1978, 24—41. 

9 Two secondary burials were found inside; see Krefter 1979, 13-25 and 24. 

10 Tilia 1978, 73. 

11 Vanden Berghe 1964, 243-258; Vanden Berghe 1989; Nylander 1966; Shahbazi 

12 Kleiss 1996. 

4 Matthew P. Canepa 

tarn, Darius built a replica of the tower at Pasargadae and subsequently the 
site evolved into the Achaemenid necropolis par excellence. All subsequent 
Achaemenid kings replicated the form and size of Darius I's tomb, as well as 
the content and iconography of its relief sculpture, only varying the num- 
ber of rock-cut sarcophagi according to the number of members of the roy- 
al family. 13 Three other kings of kings were carving their tombs at Naqs-e 
Rostam, two more kings commissioned similar tombs in the cliffs behind J 
Persepolis. j 

Other than the Achaemenid tombs themselves we have no primary source! 
evidence on Achaemenid mortuary practices. The exact extent to whichj 
Zoroastrianism informed or governed Achaemenid funerary practices is no£ 
entirely clear. However, like Achaemenid religion in general, the textua) 
and archaeological evidence indicates that ancient Iranian religious tradi- 
tions, political exigencies and nascent Zoroastrianism all impacted their de- s 
velopment to certain extents. 14 While evidence from the Avesta and >ortho- 
dox< Zoroastrianism as established by the Sasanians is more abundant, and 
it is important not to anachronistically check the Achaemenid evidence for 
orthodoxy against them, certain correspondences are quite compelling. As 
has been often noted, the tombs themselves, be they a plinth tomb like that 
of Cyrus or a rock-cut tomb like that of Darius and his successors, would 
have ritually protected the sacred elements from contamination from the 
human remains (Av. nasu-). 15 Tertiary evidence, in this case Greek literature, 
indicates that the bodies of tbe Achaemenid kings were embalmed, covered 
in wax and deposited whole along with rich clothing and furniture. 16 The 
rock-cut sarcophaguses indeed are of a size that would accommodate a hu- 
man body and confirm, at least in this aspect, that Achaemenid royal mortu- 
ary practices differed from strictures in the Zoroastrian religious texts that 
call for the body's flesh to be removed and only the disarticulated bones to 
be interred in an ossuary. 

While the form of the royal tombs changed, contemporary evidence in- 
dicates that similar ritual activities took place at all of them. Elamite tablets 

13 One of the Achaemenid tombs is securely attributed to Darius I by its inscription. 
Schmidt attributed the others to Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II on the basis 
of relative wear and style, -though this dating is far from secure; see Schmidt 1970, 

14 Recent critical studies of Achaemenid religion with an eye towards the use of the 
Avestan concepts: Skjserv0 2005; Lincoln 2007. 

15 Hutter20io. 

16 Hdt. 1. 140; Strabo 14.3.20; Arrian 6.29.4-7. 


Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 5 

from the Persepolis Fortification Archive refer to the funerary monuments 
(sumar) of the Achaemenid kings and cult rendered at them for the benefit of 
the king's soul. 17 Officials (Elamite lipte kutip; associated with the Old Per- 
sian title vagahara »chamberlain«) were drawn from the nobility and charged 
with serving as »keepers of the tombs« (Elamite sumar nuskip) and ensuring 
that sacrifices were offered at the tombs. 18 These officials had a cadre of ser- 
vants, in the Elamite tablets termed lubap and puhu, to assist them in caring 
for the royal tombs, for whom they received rations of grain or flour, wine 
and cattle for their upkeep as well as for the sacrifices themselves. 19 Paral- 
leling the Elamite tablets, Ctesias mentions several high officials who were 
charged by the subsequent king with bringing the body of the deceased ruler 
to Persia proper and who tended the tomb for years afterwards. 20 Arrian re- 
ports that within the precincts of Cyrus' tomb, » there was a small house cre- 
ated for the Magoi who cared for, Cyrus' tomb since the time of Cyrus' son, 
Cambyses, and who received the stewardship from father to son. Every day 
they were given by the king a sheep, fine white flour, wine and, each month, 
a horse, to sacrifice for Cyrus.« 21 The Persepolis Fortification tablets, Hel- 
lenistic literary sources, and archaeological evidence indicate that the sacri- 
fices themselves rendered for the Achaemenid kings did not correspond to 
later > orthodox Zoroastrian< practices or gods, though the basic intention 
of making offerings for the benefit of the deceased does. It is important to 
stress that these sacrifices were intended for the benefit of the soul of the 
king and not to the king himself. 

17 Studies of primary sources attesting to the institution of the royal tombs, cult and 
their caretakers in Achaemenid times : Henkelman 2003 ; Henkelman 2008, 287-291, 

' 429-432 and 546; Tuplin 2008; Canepa-20ioc. 

18 Henkelman studies the phenomenon in four tablets: NN 1700, NN 1848, NN 2174 
and Fort. 2512. See Henkelman 2003, 1 17-129. 

19 Henkelman 2003, 139-140. For example: »[...] Issue 600, quarts of grain (to) the 
men who (are) keepers of the sumar of Hystaspes (at) Persepolis, to them (as) rations 
for the servants [...]«, NN 1848, lines 3—10, trans. Henkelman, 104. »[...] Issue 24, 

head of small cattle to them, Bakabadda cum suis who are making (at) the sumar 

of Cambyses and the woman Upandus at Narezzas«, NN 2174, lines 1-8. 

20 For example : immediately after his accession he [Cambyses] sent his [Cyrus's] body 
by the eunuch Bagapates to Persia for burial, and in all other respects carried out his 
father's wishes«, Ctesias, frg. 13.9; Henkelman 2003, 155 (no. ioi). 

21 Arrian 6.29.4-14, cf.'Strabo 15.3—7. 

6 Matthew P. Canepa 

New Iranian Royal Funerary Practices 
after trie Macedonian Conquest 

Alexander's overthrow of the Achaemenid dynasty and the establishment 
of Macedonian kingdoms on the lands of the Persian empire was one of 
the greatest ruptures in Iranian culture. From the very start of his invasion 
Alexander was attuned to Achaemenid traditions, strategies of legitimation 
and modes of governance, and formulated his own claims in reaction to 
them. 22 Alexander sought, in his own way, to portray himself as a legiti- 
mate successor to Darius III, and left in place many Achaemenid political 
structures. Yet, while Alexander had basic knowledge of Achaemenid roy- 
al ideology and practices, that knowledge was imperfect, shaped by equally 
imperfect Greek impressions and stereotypes of the Persian kings, not to 
mention Alexander's ambitions to be something more than >just< a Persian 
king of kings. 23 He was never >consecrated< as an Achaemenid king of kings 
any more than an Egyptian pharaoh or a Babylonian king of lands, as in all 
cases this would have limited the scope of his kingship. 24 Far from a king 
who sought to seamlessly incorporate himself into the Achaemenid mod- 
el, 25 Alexander appropriated and manipulated those aspects of Persian royal 
practice that suited him. and invented or ignored the rest. His engagement 
with Persian funerary traditions and monuments are consonant j with this 
larger pattern, and his rare attempts to engage Persian royal traditions more 
often than not backfired. 26 

In the few recorded instances of Alexander's symbolic use of Achaemenid 
sites he either departed from Persian tradition completely or presented an 
improvised interpretation and use. 27 Alexander largely kept the symbolic 
power of the monuments of Parsa at arms length, fitting with his defin- 
ition of himself as king of Asia, not king of the Persians. However, one 
Achaemenid structure in the region played a positive role in his nascent pro- 
paganda program. In a gesture that would have only affected the local Per- 
sian population, Alexander made a show of caring for the tomb of Cyrus to 

22 Wiesehofer 1996, 105. 

23 Stewart 1993, 171— 181. 

24 There is no evidence of a >consecration< or coronation at Pasargadae, nor an en- 
thronement at Susa; see Bosworth 1980, 5. 

25 Wiemer 2007. 

26 For example his clumsy and portentious demand that all fires be extinguished after 
the death of Hephaistion (Diod. 17. 1 14.4-5). 

27 Persepolis: Diod. 17.72.1; Curt. Ruf. 5.6.19—20. Susa: Arrian 3.16.6— 10; Diod. 
17.66. 1— 2; Justin 1 1. 14.6— 10; Curt. Ruf. 5.1. 17— 27. 

Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 7 

loosely associate himself with the founder of the empire. It appears he left 
in place the tomb's priestly caretakers, though not before brutally torturing 
them to see if they had pilfered the tomb. 28 After Alexander, Pasargadae and- 
the tomb of Cyrus recede from sight, as do the tombs of Naqs-e Rostam. 29 
His own funerary preparations, burial and subsequent cult were the result 
of the activities and claims of his successors, especially Ptolemaic Egypt. 

Seleucid Funerary Monuments and Ritual 

The royal traditions of the Seleucid dynasty (312 to 64 BCE) impacted the 
development of Middle Iranian kingship. After Seleukos I had been mur- 
dered by Ptolemy Keraunos, Philetairos, the governor of Pergamon, ran- 
somed the body, cremated it at Pergamon and sent the remains to Antio- 
chos I. 30 Responding, no doubt, to Ptolemy I's precedent of the Sema of 
Alexandria, Antiochos I established his father's remains in Seleukeia Pieria, 
creating within the grounds of the royal district (basileia) a temple for them. 
Rather than being modeled on a heroon, the Nikatoreion, as it was called, 
had the trappings of a cult site dedicated to an Olympic god: it was a temenos 
with a naos to Seleukos. 31 Excavations at Seleukeia Pieria uncovered a large 
Doric peripteral temple (37 * 19 m), built without an opsthodomos? 2 Instead, 
the temple had the unusual feature of an enclosed area at the end of the eel- 
la (an adyton) that controlled access to a flight of stairs which led to down 
to a crypt. This suggests that this structure was the mausoleum-Mdas of the 
Nikatoreion. "We do not have evidence of the funerals or burial places of 
the other Seleucid kings; however, it is possible that legitimate sovereigns 
received similar honors either at the Nikatoreion in Seleukeia Pieria, or at 
their own temenos in another city. The Nikatoreion of Seleukeia Pieria was 
not the genesis or core of an empire-wide cult like the Sema of Alexandria. 
Rather, it appears that the traditions of the local cult site were later made 
to conform to the onicial dynastic cult, which was instituted first by Antio- 

28 Arrian 6.29.4-14, cf. Strabo 15.3-7- Studies of primary sources attesting to the in- 
stitution of the royal tombs, cult and their caretakers in Achaemenid times: Henkel- 
man 2003, Henkelman 2008, 287-291, 429-432 and 546. 

29 Boucharlat 2006. 

30 Appian Syr. 63. 

3 1 Alonso 2009, 293 . Related is the sanctuary of the Seleucid divine dynastic founder, 

Apollo, also in Syria, at Daphne. 

32 Stillwell 1941, 33-34; Hannestad/Potts 1990, 116. 

8 Matthew P. Canepa 

chos III, beginning in 209 and then fully by 204. 33 A fragmentary inscription 
from Seleukeia Pieria records the annual priesthoods for the city, which in- 
clude priests of the deceased Seleucid kings and the living king, indicating 
they received cultic devotion in the city. 34 

Archaeological evidence of the phenomenon of dedicating a funerary 
temenos based architecturally on a sanctuary of an Olympic god and focused 
on a temple with crypt, occurs at Ai Khanum (Ay Kanom) in Bactria. While 
we do not know the ancient name of the city of Ai Khanum, the weight of 
the archaeological' and numismatic evidence indicates that the city was one 
of Seleukos Fs foundations, founded sometime in the late fourth century 
BCE. After 250 BCE it grew under the independent Diodotid and Euthy- 
demid kings until its destruction by nomadic invaders ca. 150 BCE. Like the 
Nikatoreion of the palace of Seleukeia Pieria, Ai Khanum's palatial district 
incorporated two funerary temenoi containing temples with crypts, burials 
and evidence of cult activity. The oldest was dedicated to the city founder, 
and the later to Bactria's new royal family. Reminiscent of the Seleucid's 
adaptation of Persian palatial design, the temenoi occur inside the palatial 
precinct, though not'inside the palace itself. A visitor would reach the cen- 
tral palace only by travelling through a series of gatehouses and grand cor- 
ridors. 35 After passing through the main gate the visitor would pass into a 
corridor that gave access to the palace and sacred precincts. To the south 
of the corridor lay the temenos of the city founder Kineas, built as a sim- 
ple Doric temple, as well as the city's temple to Zeus, reconstructed several 
times over the life of the city - always on a non-Greek plan. 36 The cella of 
the mausoleum-ftdos of Kineas contained a conduit from the structure's cella 
to the crypt's main sarcophagus and revealed clear evidence that libations 
were repeatedly poured over the city-founder's remains. This indicates that 
it served as a cultic focus for at least one portion of the city's population. 37 

Within a separate enclosure to the northeast of the corridor rose a larger 
and more elaborate temple-like structure that similarly contained multiple 
burials. 38 Its two-phased construction dates later than that of Kineas. The 
structure was one of the grandest buildings in the city, built in the most pres- 

33 Van Nuffelen 2004, 284. 

34 OGIS 245. Cohen 1995, 128 and 134 (nos. 15 and 16). 

35 Bernard 1973, 85-102. 

36 The site of the temple a redans, as it was called in the original reports and later schol- 
arhip; Downey 1988, 65-73; Francfort 1984; Bernard 1971, 414-431. 

37 Bernard 1973, 96-99. 

38 Francfort/Liger 1976, 25-39; Bernard 1975, 180-189; Mairs 2006, 77-81. 

Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 9 

tigious quarter with a greater ratio of stone to mud brick than most other 
structures. 39 Such evidence strongly suggests that this structure served as the 
temenos of the new royal family of Bactria, 40 christened the »heroon« or »mau- 
solee au caveau depierre« although, like the temenos of Kineas and the descrip- 
tion of the Nikatoreion, it was built as a temple (naos). Unlike the temenos 
of Kineas, no inscription survives (if there ever was one) to record who was 
buried and venerated here. Two structures of similar size were built on the 
site, and the last was built as an Ionic peripteral temple with a high podium, 
measuring 29.75 by 20 meters and surrounded with columns standing ca. 
6 meters high. 41 The cella was divided into a vestibule, a large central room 
Apiece i«) and smaller room (»piece 2«) to the west. Reached by a stairway, 
two crypts containing burials were arranged underneath these two rooms. • 
Evoking the temenos of Kineas, the main crypt related to the smaller room to 
the west Apiece i«), which suggests some sort of direct connection between 
what went on in the cella above and the crypt below. 42 We do not have the 
same clear evidence of libations poured into the cella, but it is possible that 
these could have occurred with a cultic precedent readily provided by the 
temenos of Kineas. It is important to leave open the possibility that such li- 
bations never occurred and, instead, that rituals patterned more on that of 
an Olympic god occurred both within and outside the structure, perhaps in 
emulation of Seleucid practice. 

We do not have any information on the resting place of the remains of 
the legitimate Seleucid kings; however, with the archaeological evidence 
from Bactria providing solid examples of this process, it is probable that 
the remains of succeeding and legitimate Seleucid kings joined that of Se- 
leukos I under the Nikatoreion and were duly divinized by their sons. Nei- 
ther do we have information, textual or archaeological, that can speak to the 
cultic relationship of the elite of Seleukeia Pieria or the other cities of the 
Seleucid Tetrapolis with the Nikatoreion; however, the Bactrian temenoi, 
which served a similar purpose and were located in a similar place within 
the basileia, suggest that they likely were the focus of intensive cult activity 

3 9 Dated on the basis of ceramics ; see Francfort/Liger 1976, 3 8 . 

40 Francfort and Liger hesitated from this conclusion, attempting to make the evidence 
conform with the scholarly consensus of the independence of Bactria when they 
were writing (Francfort/Liger, 39), which has progressed considerably since. See 
Holt 1999. As Mairs points out, it significant that this was the sole structure that 
retained some continuity after the nomadic destruction of the city, with several 
later burials deposited after its conquest. Mairs 2006, 80. 

41 Francfort/Liger 1976, 31. 

42 Bernard 1975, 189. The temenos of Kineas : Mairs 2006, 66-76 and 78. 

io Matthew P. Canepa 

on the part of the royal family and elites of Seleukeia Pieria, if not the entire 
Seleukis Tetrapolis. Although their cults were formed around, once-living 
beings, the temenoi of the deified rulers and the city founder were not locat- 
ed in a separate precinct from, or less grand than, the city's main temple. 

Reflecting a greater involvement with South Asia, as well as more cultur- 
al complexity, later Indo-Greek kings, such as Menander (ca. mid-second 
century BCE), evolved hybrid forms of kingship, with South Asian prac- 
tices blended seamlessly with Hellenistic ones. Menander portrayed himself 
as a successor of Alexander on his coins while appearing in the Pali text, the 
Milindapanha, as a dharmika dharmaraja. Plutarch's mention of Menander's 
burial hints that he engaged both Seleucid and South Asian traditions. 43 Ac- 
cording to Plutarch the king's cities' divided his ashes into equal parts and in- 
corporated them into monuments. Like the Seleucid and Bactrian evidence, 
Menander 's remains became incorporated into the monumental and ritual 
life of his empire, but, rather than a Greek temenos and naos, it is likely that 
they were Incorporated into Buddhist stupas. 

Middle Iranian Royal Funerary Practice between Macedonian, 
Persian and Nomadic Traditions 

As Seleucid power began to weaken, new powers emerged in the lands of 
their former empire. Some, like Euthydemid Bactria, were Greek, but oth- 
ers, such as the Orontids of Armenia and Commagene and Mithradatids of 
Pontos, traced their roots equally to Persian satrapal families and the Se- 
leucid dynasty. Increasingly, regimes founded by Iranian speaking nomads, , 
such as the Arsacids or Kusans, became the dominant powers. The Middle 
Iranian period presents evidence from across the lands of the Seleucid em- 
pire of Iranian dynasties, or dynasties heavily influenced by Iranian culture, 
engaging with Macedonian kingship, reinventing half-remembered Persian 
traditions and incorporating new practices from the Iranian-speaking no- 
madic steppe. 

While evidence of the Indo-Scythian period of India is not abundant, 
one of the few monuments to survive from this period provides evidence of 
an introduction of Iranian steppe traditions into those of post-Hellenistic 
sedentary culture: The Mathura Hon inscription, likely a charter for a 
monastery carved onto red sandstone sculpture, is one of the rare views in- 
to Iranian court ritual in India and the melding of steppe, Greek and South 

43 Plut. Moralia, 821 D-E. 

Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 1 1 

Asian traditions under the Saka kings. The Lion Capital, »erected >in hon- 
our of the whole of Sakastan< (sarvasa Sak(r)stanasapuyae)«, names many Sa- 
ka chiefs and refers to solemnities over the illustrious king [Manes] and his 
horse,< (Muki [shr]i raya sashpa [a]bhusavit[a]). u In honoring the king Maues 
and his horse side by side, the inscription possibly alludes to a horse sacrifice. 
Although these >solemnities< were performed in India, such a funerary ritual 
had clearer and more immediate cultural roots in Iranian Central Asia than 
the Vedic asvamedha. 45 "We have no further information on this burial, though 
we might reference coeval archaeological evidence of Scythian kurgans as a 
likely scenario. 

The kingdom of Pontos had its roots in the Achaemenid satrapies of Cap- 
padoccia and Phrygia and its dynasty claimed Achaemenid descent. Alexan- 
der retained the Persian official whose family had ruled as satraps in the re- 
gion. After his father ran afoul of Antigonos I Monophthalmus, Mithra- 
dates I Ktistes (302 to 266 BCE), the founder of the kingdom, asserted in- 
dependence and carved out a kingdom in northern Anatolia. 46 The Pontic 
kings were very much players in the military and diplomatic intrigues of 
the Hellenistic age and engaged the evolving idiom of Macedonian king- 
ship just as they cultivated their Iranian roots. 47 Accordingly, the kings of 
Pontos created tomb monuments that reinvented and, in a sense, >updated< 
Persian royal practices. Even though they superficially appear quite Mace- 
donian, they present some of the closest correspondences to Achaemenid 
royal funerary traditions from the Hellenistic era. 

The city of Amaseia served as the royal residence of five Pontic kings 
between 281 and 180 BCE: Mithridates I, Ariobarzanes, Mithridates II and 
III, and Pharnakes I. In the vicinity of the royal district (basileia), the Pontic 

44 Inscription: see Konow 1929, 30. See Bivar's comments on Dani i960 on the age of 
the monument versus the inscription; Bivar 1983, 195. 

45 The tradition of Scythian horse sacrifice is attested in the classical literary tradi- 
tion (Hdt. 1.216, 4.61, 4.71-75; see Thordarson 1987, 731) as well as widely in the 
archaeological record (for a recent synthesis of the evidence in the wider context 
of Iron Age nomadic Eurasia: Koryakova/Epimakhov 2007, 224-229 and 331. Evi- 
dence of horse sacrifice at Tilla Tepe further indicates that this was a. living reality 
taking place nearby by closely related cultures versus the more distant ideal of the 
asvamedha in Brahmanic India; Sarianidi' 1980, 126; Smith/Doniger 1989; Doniger. 

46 Polyb. 5.43.2; Diod. 19.43.2; 20.11.4; Plut. Demetr. 4; Plut. Mor. 183 A; App. Mith. 
9.27-28. Discussion of early history and genealogy: McGing 1986, 13-42; Erciyas 
2006, 9-17. 

47 Mithradates VI boasted equally of his royal Persian and Macedonian descent, count- 
ing as ancestors Cyrus, Darius, Alexander and Seleukos I: Just. Epit. 38.7.1. 

12 Matthew P. Catiepa 

kings created rock-cut funerary monuments ((xvt^cxtoc), which were not- 
ed by Strabo, himself a native of Amaseia, in his description of the city. 48 
The tombs consisted of rock-cut chambers carved into the rock face with 
facades revetted with stone and provisioned with columns and architectur- 
al members mimicking Greek sacred architecture. While the Greek archi- 
tectural forms of the tomb facades recall the Macedonian royal tombs of 
Vergina, their rock-cut chambers set high up on the cliff unmistakably evoke 
the medium and Iranian religious sensibilities of the Achaemenid tombs, as 
does evidence of associated ritual. An inscription added to the rock face ad- 
jacent to the tomb of Pharnakes alludes to practices intended to honor the 
gods at the tomb of the king. The inscription records that the phrourarchos, 
Metrodoros, dedicated an altar and a »flower-garden« (avOecovoc) to the gods 
for Pharnakes : 

6-rcep pocotXe&x; 
[. ..Jiootppoopap- 

jVjovxa! [t]6v 


eeoV 9 

While the Pontic kings did not attempt to replicate the Achaemenid tombs, 
they did appropriate and reconfigure several important and characteristic 
aspects of Achaemenid funerary practices. The inscription does not direct- 
ly mention sacrifices; however, the altar ([t6]v pa)[u]6v) implies that such 
ritual activity occurred at the site. Relating to Iranian rather than Mace- 
donian practices, the inscription is clear that they are directed to the gods 
(Geotc;) for the benefit of Pharnakes rather than to the king himself. Like the 
Achaemenid tombs, the Pontic rock-cut tombs would prevent the body of 
the deceased from polluting any of the elements and would thus be conso- 
nant with Iranian purity strictures. 50 The flower garden laid before the tomb 
corresponds to the idea of placing the king's tomb inside a garden, evoking, 
albeit on a smaller scale the Achaemenid tomb of Cyrus. The deceased king 
would thus rest in a symbolic prefiguration of the world made new after the 
Apocalypse. 51 Although the tombs were located in the cliff face, tunnels or 

48 Strab. 12.3.39; Fleischer 2009. 

49 Anderson/Cumont/Gregoire 1910, 114-115, no. 94. OGISi: 573 - 575> no. 365. 

50 Huff 2004. 

51 Lincoln 2003, 142; Lincoln 2007, 67-8 1. 

Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 1 3 

rock-cut stairs connected each of them with the basikia, ensuring that vis- 
its to the tombs for ritual purposes would be possible. 52 The Pontic kings 
used an architectural and linguistic mode of expression that was superficial- 
ly Greek; however, the concepts and practices were unmistakably drawn 
from an Iranian repertoire - a repertoire that once was the domain of the 
Persian court, but at this point in history was being selectively appropriated 
by a wider Iranian world. 53 

Like the Pontic kings, the royal dynasty of the kingdom of Commagene 
(162 BCE to 17 CE) had its roots in a Persian dynasty, that of the Orontids; 
however, as a Seleucid province, Commagene became heavily Hellenized. 
But Iranian cultural forms regained prominence in the first century BCE 
as part of a deliberate policy of conservative innovation on the part of the 
central court to underscore the kingdom's ancient roots that transcended 
Seleucid, Arsacid or Roman claims in the region. Ruler of one of the last 
Persian-Macedonian courts of this region to survive the coming of the Ro- 
mans, Antiochus I (69 to 34 BCE), the kingdom's main innovator in cult 
and artistic activity, engaged with the forms of the Iranian dynastic sanctu- 
ary much like he did with other aspects of Iranian royal expression: within 
the larger context of his deliberately >hybrid< Macedonian and Iranian court. 
Referring to such sanctuaries in Greek as hierothesia (sing, hierothesion) in his 
inscriptions, the king established dynastic sanctuaries at a number of sites 
within his kingdom, including the citadel of Arsameia-on-the-Euphrates 
(Gerger, Adiyaman province, Turkey) and Arsameia-on-the-Nymphaios. 54 
The most elaborate hierothesion was located at the site of Nemrud Dagi, 
situated on the most prominent mountain in Commagene. 55 The central fo- 
cus of the site is an artificial tumulus of crushed rocks, which crowned the 
mountain and encased the king's body. Like the other monuments consid- 
ered in this study, it shielded the earth and elements from contact with dead 
human remains, but it did so using a different material. Like the tombs of 
the female members of the royal family located at Karakus, and Sesonk, the 

5 2 Fleischer 2009, 1 1 1 . 

53 After Pharnakes conquered Sinope and made it his royal residence, it is often as- 
sumed that Amaseia no longer hosted royal burials. Pompey deposited Mithri- 
dates VTs remains in the »tombs of his ancestors,« but we do not learn what the 
character of these tombs were and it is unclear whether this was actually in Sinope, 
as Plutarch, claims, or in Amaseia (Plut. Pomp. 42.3; App. Mith. 16. 113; Cass. Dio 
37.14.1). See Fleischer 2009, 118; H0j"te 2009, 123-124. 

54 For an overview of these sanctuaries: Facella 2006, 250-297; Canepa 2007; Koch 
2002; "Wagner 2000; Waldmann 1991. 

55 Sanders 1996. 

14 Matthew P. Canepa 

tumulus evokes nomadic kurgans more than any Achaemenid tomb. Two 
terraces flanked the eastern and western side providing two focal points for 
cult activity. While the architectural, sculptural and ritual forms of the hiero- 
thesion more often than not depart from Persian precedent, Antiochos un- 
derstood that he was adhering to Persian tradition. The 8 meter high stat- 
ues portraying king Antiochos, the Tyche of Commagene and its chief gods 
were enthroned wearing »Persian robes«, looking out over the lands of the 
kingdom below. The cult nomos that the king instituted honors the gods, 
himself, and secondarily his Persian and Macedonian ancestors. 56 He explic- 
itly states that, year in and year out, the priests must wear »Persian robes «, 
in order to enact the cult activities, which take place according to similar, 
»ancestral custom. « 57 In setting aside an endowment for the site and call- 
ing for the chief priest to, »keep watch at this memorial and devote himself 
to the care and the proper adornment of these sacred images«, the nomos 
broadly recalls the Achaemenid institution of tomb caretakers as' record- 
ed in the Elamite tablets, though the overall structure of the cult, and the 
site's artistic and architectural forms belong solidly in the post-Achaemenid 
world. 58 

The Monuments of the Arsacid and Sasanian Kings of Kings 

Under the Arsacid and Sasanian rulers of Iran we have evidence that a new 
royal memorial tradition emerges, that of dedicating a sacred fire to the 
memory of the king of kings and his family. The Arsacids and Sasanians 
appear to adapt the ritual activity of a Zoroastrian cult of fire to serve the 
royal memorial needs. 

Parthian Nisa (^MiBradatkirt), the first imperial capital of the Arsacid dy- 
nasty of Iran (ca. 250 BCE to ca. 226 CE) presents some source evidence 
of the dynasty's royal funerary traditions. 59 The Arsacids supposedly em- 
balmed the bodies of their kings and laid them in mausoleums, which, ac- 
cording to Isidore of Charax, were located at Nisa. 60 However, no archaeo- 

56 Nomos 67. 

57 Nomos 6y and 132. 

58 Nomos 124. 

59 Final publication: Invernizzi 2009. See Invernizzi/Lippolis 2008 and Invernizzi 
2010. On the related problem of an Arsacid ruler cult: Dabrowa 2009 and Muccioli 

60 Isid. Char. Mans. Parth. 12. According to Dio Cassius, in 216 the Roman emper- 
or Caracalla plundered the Arsacid royal tombs in Arbela and scattered the bones; 
however, no Arsacid king is known to have built a city or fortress here. It is thus 

Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 15 

logical evidence of these tombs have been discovered at Nisa. It could be that 
the tombs were located elsewhere at a yet undiscovered site in the vicinity 
or all trace of them lost. Some of the early Soviet excavators initially hy- 
pothesized that Nisa s >Round Hall< served as a mausoleum dedicated to an 
important member of the Arsacid dynasty. 61 This 17 meter diameter domed, 
mud brick structure, belonged to a later building phase and was linked to the 
site's main palatial structure by corridors and three passages. 62 However, no 
funerary materials, no sarcophagus, no evidence of other mortuary prac- 
tices were discovered to prove that the Arsacid tombs were associated with 
this structure making it is more likely that the structure was associated with 
dynastic cult rather than direct funerary activity. 

While the Arsacid tombs still await discovery, documents from the site 
indicate that the practice of dedicating a sacred fire pad ruwan, that is, »for the 
souk of the king or for his family members was a current practice in Parthian 
Nisa. 63 Ostraka from Nisa document delivery of goods from the estates that 
supported such a foundation, and the inclusion of Mithradates I's name as 
the dedicatee indicates that he or his relatives endowed the cult for his own 
memory and the benefit of his soul. 64 The intention of this foundation is 
broadly similar to the Achaemenid material in its aim of encouraging ritual 
activity that would benefit the soul of the king; however, whether this. was 
linearly related to Achaemenid practices (the less likely scenario) or eastern 
Zoroastrian practices is not entirely clear. Without any other information 
on the fire, one can only speculate on its relationship to the structures at 
Nisa. Echoing their dynastic cousins, textual evidence indicates that fires 
or altars were located at the site of the royal tombs of the Arsacid kings of 
Armenia in Ani. 65 His troubled chonology withstanding, according to the 
late antique Armenian historian Movses Khorenats'i, a king named »Tigran« 
built an altar over the tomb his brother at Bagawan, the site of the »Fire 
of Ohrmazd«, where the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia would celebrate New 
Years. 66 

more likely that the tombs at Arbela were, in fact, the tombs of the vassal dynasty 
of Adiabene, again reflecting the Arsacid conventions; Cass. Dio 71.26 and 74.1. See 

Hansman 1987. 

61 Koselenko 1977, 57-64; Koselenko et al. 2002; Kraseninnikova/Pugacenkova 1964; 
Invernizzi/Lippolis 2008, 7 and 382. 

62 Invernizzi/Lippolis 2008, 7-81. 

63 Boyce 1987. 

64 Boyce 1987. 

65 Agathangelos 785 (tr. Thomson 1976)- 

66 Movses Khorenats'i 2. 5 5 (tr. Thomson 2006, 195) ; 2.66 (tr. Thomson 2006, 209). 

1 6 Matthew R Canepa 

While the Sasanians (226 to 651 CE) sought to supplant the Arsacids and 
reawaken the royal traditions of their Persian >ancestors<, many of their king- 
ship practices paralleled, if not directly appropriated, Parthian practices. 67 
Given the early dynasty's interest in Achaemenid sites, rituals and discourse, 
as well as their role as raw material many aspects of their early culture, it is 
not surprising that the early Sasanians engaged the Achaemenid past in their 
funerary and monumental activity. 68 The site of Naqs-e Rostam presents a 
large volume of archaeological evidence of mortuary and funerary remains 
from both the Achaemenid and Sasanian eras. In addition to his monumental 
rock relief, located in between two Achaemenid tombs, Sapur I (240 to 270 
CE) carved an inscription on the Ka'ba-ye Zardost, the site's Achaemenid 
tower. This extensive inscription (SKZ) provides an epigraphic record of his 
foundation of fires and cult for himself, his family, his ancestors and a vast 
number of courtiers. 69 Broadly paralleling both Arsacid and Achaemenid 
evidence, this inscription established a cult for the benefit of his soul based 
around veneration of sacred fires. 70 Evidence from the other inscriptions 
at Naqs-e Rostam indicates that the cult took place at the site, if not di- 
rectly on or around the Ka'ba-ye Zardost, and quite likely in close phys- 
ical proximity to his remains. 71 While he did not (and could not) recreate 
Achaemenid cult, Sapur I physically anchored this newly founded protocol 
on the Achaemenid tower and constructed the ritual itself with inspiration 
from ancient Persian royal traditions. The Sasanian protocol, calling for sac- 
rifice of a sheep, bread, and wine, closely parallels the Elamite tablets from 
the Persepolis Fortification Archive which record rations for the upkeep of 
the funerary monuments (sutnar) of the Achaemenid kings and cult rendered 
at them for the benefit of the king's soul. 


The political and cultural upheavals following Alexander's invasions en- 
sured that Achaemenid royal practices were imperfectly remembered and 
not replicated in an unchanged and uninterrupted manner. After Alexan- 
der, Achaemenid kingship lost its currency as a primary expression of pow- 
er among both Macedonians and Iranians. No king in the post-Achaemenid 

67 B6rtn2oo8. 

68 Canepa 2010c. 

69 SKZ, 33-50 (Huyse 1999). 

70 Canepa 2010c, 582-84. 

71 Canepa 20ioc, 583. 

Achaemenid and Seleucid Royal Funerary Practices 1 7 

lands cared to represent himself using the artistic forms and conventions of 
the Achaemenid court. Macedonian kingship, especially as innovated by the 
Seleucid court, had taken precedence. 

While they shared the common influence of Hellenistic culture and the 
dimming memory of Persian royal practice, the Middle Iranian responses 
to these ancient and contemporary influences varied greatly. The Seleucids, 
Graeco-Bactrians and Indo-Greeks created monuments that responded at 
once to Macedonian charismatic kingship 72 while integrating the cult of the 
king into the monumental and ritual life of kingdoms where indigenous 
forms of power were increasingly important. The kings of Pontos and Com- 
magene both understood themselves to descend on their paternal line from 
the Achaemenid satrapal familes. Like their cultures of kingship in general, 
their funerary practices responded to their Mediterranean and Iranian com- 
petitors as well as dimming Achaemenid precedents in varying measures. 
Interestingly, while the funerary monuments of Orontid Commagene ex- 
plicitly referenced this >Persian< tradition, claiming to recreate it, their actual 
practices did not bear much direct resemblance to those of the Achaemenids. 
Although we do not have a great deal of corroborating evidence, one might 
argue that the Orontid funerary cult, with its king honored as a god, bore 
a greater resemblance to Seleucid traditions. In contrast, the architectural 
forms of the Pontic tombs are superficially Greek; however, the overall pat- 
tern of their funerary monuments (rock cut tombs, associated garden) co- 
heres quite a bit more closely with Achaemenid practices. In a sense, Orontid 
Commagene >reinvented< Persian tradition, while Mithradatid Pontos Hel- 
lenized their Persian traditions. 

Similarly, the traditions of the Arsacids and Sasanians mark a point of 
rupture in terms of the introduction of a sacred fire but continuity in terms 
of the general understanding of the sacrifice as intended for the soul for 
the king. Sites in Arsacid Iran and Armenia likely incorporated the use of 
cult statues into such rituals, though the king himself was not honored 
thus. While fire was the sole cultic focus under the Sasanians, the actual 
Achaemenid sites and remains were integral in reinforcing the perception 
of continuity, even if, in actual fact, what they produced was quite innova- 

72 Gehrke 1982; Frye 1964. 

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